The Need for Listening and Empathy in Journalism

Two recent blog posts raise this question: Just how often do news organizations actually listen to their communities?

In his post, former News & Record editor John Robinson argues that his paper doesn’t dedicate time or resources to the issues he and many other readers face on a daily basis. And the News & Record isn’t unusual. In fact, Robinson says this problem isn’t limited to newspapers: “TV news has the same news diet,” he writes, “and it’s not in touch with mine.”

In a response to Robinson, Kevin Anderson notes that many newsrooms are “subsisting on the fumes cast off by official life: crime, council meetings and planned events.” They’re spending much less time, Anderson says, on “the lived experience of their communities.”

Being Zoned Out of the News

This debate reminded me of a talk that longtime editor Tom Stites gave at UMass Amherst in 2006. “Why is it that less-than-affluent Americans are being zoned out of serious reporting?” Stites asked.

Stites noted at the time that newspapers were increasingly aiming to serve the audiences that advertisers want to reach. “Is there any wonder that less affluent Americans have abandoned newspapers and are angry at the press?” Stites asked. “They’ve abandoned newspapers … because the newspapers have abandoned them.”

In his talk Stites dissects one day’s Boston Globe looking for stories that would reflect the realities of, and provide meaningful service to, Boston’s poor and working class. Instead he finds stories about the Boston Symphony, Cape Cod vacations, a local classical music station, houses that cost over $300,000, lobster dinners and investment advice. And like Robinson above, he notes, this isn’t about the Globe, it is about the entire industry.

In an earlier post on the topic, Anderson say we need to be asking ourselves: “What stories are we missing? What part of the audience are we ignoring? Whose viewpoint are we ignoring?”

Those are all good questions, but there’s another one: What is the role of empathy in journalism?

Engaging Empathy

Two weeks ago, I saw Ira Glass talk about how stories enable us to see ourselves in the lives of others.  “The story is a machine for empathy,” Glass has argued elsewhere. “It is a really powerful tool for imagining yourself in other people’s situations.” Here, Glass is concerned not only with what stories to cover, but how to tell those stories. If we want to begin better reflecting the lived experiences of our communities we need to tackle both.

A year ago, Andrew Haeg left his work in public broadcasting to develop what he called an “empathy engine” to help journalists better engage and understand communities. In a blog post announcing his new project, he quotes Jose Antonio Vargas’ keynote at the 2012 Online News Association conference. Vargas said that journalism “has given me the biggest gift that anybody could ever give me […] the gift of empathy. Of seeing and listening to people who may not agree with me and who feel different than I do.”

So the question of empathy has two facets: empathy in the newsroom, and the empathy our stories foster in our readers. What connects these two elements is the act of listening.

Listening to Community

Better reflecting and responding to our communities has to start with better listening.

While journalism is rooted in interviews, there’s not enough discussion about the need to listen to our communities. And by listening, I don’t mean simply talking to sources or listening for story leads, I mean listening for the sake of understanding and building truly reciprocal relationships with communities.

And I don’t mean monitoring social media, fine tuning Web analytics, or reading comment sections. That kind of digital engagement is necessary but not sufficient.

My background is in community organizing, a core part of which involves listening to communities, identifying their needs and their assets, and supporting their efforts to build solutions and make change. There are many models for how organizers do this that could be translated to the newsroom context.

But we also don’t have to look outside journalism. In 2002, Keith Woods, now NPR’s vice president for diversity in news and operations, created a training at Poynter called “The Listening Post.” He wrote:

“Journalists interested in telling more of a community’s ‘truth’ need to establish listening posts in the places that fall outside the routine of journalism. … But there are things the journalist needs to think about when working on setting up listening posts in under-covered communities. The first thing they need to know is that they have to leave the office, the neighborhood, maybe even the comfort of personal likes and dislikes in order to make this happen.”

Projects like the Civil Conversations Project use media and journalism as a catalyst for meaningful debates in communities. Other projects like the National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ Parity Project at the former Rocky Mountain News have connected communities and newsrooms in ways that shift and challenge newsroom culture, coverage, and staffing.

A Media That Reflects the Diversity of our Nation

Which raises a final point. The staffing and ownership of our media don’t reflect the diversity of our communities. New data released by the FCC late last year shows that women own less than 7 percent of radio and TV stations and people of color own just 5 percent of TV and 8 percent of radio stations.

In its most recent survey, the American Society of News Editors found that newsroom diversity has “hovered between 12 and 13 percent for more than a decade.” Finally, a number of studies have found that women are consistently underrepresented in bylines and as sources.

There is a web of factors that we need to unpack and examine when we take on the challenge of creating a media that better reflects the diversity of our nation and more fully responds to the concerns of its communities. These issues are deeply embedded in questions of ethics, sustainability, and our role in a democracy — and they deserve more attention.

(A version of this post originally appeared at FreePress.net)
Image by Flickr user NS Newsflash used under creative commons license. 

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